Rich Beattie

Protecting the unique creatures of the Galápagos Islands is a shockingly recent concept. And the preservation battle is far from over.

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As the tour went on, I learned that the islands’ eco-awakening roughly paralleled that of our guide, José Castillo (known as Pepe), a Galapageño who grew up on San Cristóbal in the 1970s. Back then, he said, beaches were strewn with heaps of trash, and the waters full of overzealous fishermen who endangered undersea species. Pepe was a fisherman himself until he decided to go green, starting a recycling company in his 20s and then becoming a guide.

“Eco-awareness is much better now,” he said. But things are by no means perfect. The very first day of the trip, our group walked along Playa Mann—a long stretch of white sand on San Cristóbal peppered with sea lions and bordered by a jetty crawling with slow-moving iguanas and bright red crabs. Yellow warblers hopped among the scrub brush. The water’s surface shone a spectacular bright blue. An idyllic scene, until someone noticed a baby sea lion with a white plastic bag wrapped around its neck. Keeping an eye out for a protective mother, Pepe yanked it off. “Educating locals,” he acknowledged, “is an ongoing process.”

But it’s a process that will only be successful if government agencies, nonprofits like the Charles Darwin Foundation, and tour companies also make strides. And they have. Tour companies must now follow predefined itineraries. Many use lead-free paint and biodegradable products. Some have gone even further. Ecoventura, for example, retrofit its M/Y Eric as the Galápagos’s first hybrid tour boat in 2008.

For travelers, these protection efforts translate to otherworldly experiences, as I had on the island of Floreana. Here, sea lions covered the sand, lying out like bags of mulch, until my group donned masks and flippers for an awkward walk into the sea. Seeing us wading in, several of the lugubrious lions lumbered up to their flippers and did their own awkward waddle to join the party.

And what a party. Stingrays bobbed along the sandy bottom. Schools of fish cut a collective path against the tide. Two penguins streaked past in a monochromatic blur. And just offshore, a sea turtle, nearly as big as a Smart Car, was slowly treading water, occasionally poking its ancient head out amid the undulating peaks of the surf. I treaded water myself, just a couple feet from his mosaicked shell, mesmerized by his slow-motion flipper flapping, and marveling at the life surrounding me.

The Surprising Secret of the Galápagos Islands

As the tour went on, I learned that the islands’ eco-awakening roughly paralleled that of our guide, José Castillo (known as Pepe), a Galapageño who grew up on San Cristóbal in the 1970s. Back then, he said, beaches were strewn with heaps of trash, and the waters full of overzealous fishermen who endangered undersea species. Pepe was a fisherman himself until he decided to go green, starting a recycling company in his 20s and then becoming a guide.

“Eco-awareness is much better now,” he said. But things are by no means perfect. The very first day of the trip, our group walked along Playa Mann—a long stretch of white sand on San Cristóbal peppered with sea lions and bordered by a jetty crawling with slow-moving iguanas and bright red crabs. Yellow warblers hopped among the scrub brush. The water’s surface shone a spectacular bright blue. An idyllic scene, until someone noticed a baby sea lion with a white plastic bag wrapped around its neck. Keeping an eye out for a protective mother, Pepe yanked it off. “Educating locals,” he acknowledged, “is an ongoing process.”

But it’s a process that will only be successful if government agencies, nonprofits like the Charles Darwin Foundation, and tour companies also make strides. And they have. Tour companies must now follow predefined itineraries. Many use lead-free paint and biodegradable products. Some have gone even further. Ecoventura, for example, retrofit its M/Y Eric as the Galápagos’s first hybrid tour boat in 2008.

For travelers, these protection efforts translate to otherworldly experiences, as I had on the island of Floreana. Here, sea lions covered the sand, lying out like bags of mulch, until my group donned masks and flippers for an awkward walk into the sea. Seeing us wading in, several of the lugubrious lions lumbered up to their flippers and did their own awkward waddle to join the party.

And what a party. Stingrays bobbed along the sandy bottom. Schools of fish cut a collective path against the tide. Two penguins streaked past in a monochromatic blur. And just offshore, a sea turtle, nearly as big as a Smart Car, was slowly treading water, occasionally poking its ancient head out amid the undulating peaks of the surf. I treaded water myself, just a couple feet from his mosaicked shell, mesmerized by his slow-motion flipper flapping, and marveling at the life surrounding me.

Rich Beattie

The Surprising Secret of the Galápagos Islands

Dipping my mask and snorkel into the azure waters of the southern Galápagos brings a silent, serene world into focus: skinny purple angelfish with golden tails nibble on orange coral, while pink-tinted bluechin parrotfish wriggle through lush lawns of sea grass.

Suddenly, my eye catches something big closing in fast, almost brushing my right side. It’s a sea lion, as long as me, that somersaults, doubles back, then starts literally swimming circles around me. She’s just playing, showing off—but it is a lion, after all, and it takes my breath away. Still, before I can react, she swims right up to my mask, and for a couple seconds, we’re nose-to-whiskers, gazing curiously at each other before, with a push of her flipper, she zips off.

It’s the kind of wildlife encounter one might expect on islands that lie 600 miles from their continental landlord, Ecuador. And not just any group of islands, of course, but the laboratory for one of history’s most significant scientific discoveries, and an area that still plays host to species found nowhere else on earth.

But as renowned as these volcanic landmasses are, the idea of protecting the Galápagos is a shockingly recent development. It wasn’t long ago that overfishing, irresponsible tourism, and a nonchalant attitude toward invasive species threatened the entire ecosystem. Without the relatively new—and ongoing—effort to preserve what’s here, that beautiful, intimate dance with my sea lion friend might never have happened.

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